After 39 days as virtual pawns in the hands of Survivor's most cunning strategist, Texas oilman Russell Hantz, the votes cast in Samoa by the nine jury members—all but one of them from the originally victorious Galu tribe—were counted tonight and Jeff Probst named the sole Survivor.
Blindside! In Russell's own words, "the nice girl outwitted and outplayed him" when the Survivor: Samoa jurors awarded the top prize to Hantz's loyal follower ally and unwitting member of his infamous "dumb-girls alliance." But early in the game, the 26-year-old Southern blond beauty surprised her tribe when she triumphantly returned to camp with food: a rat she had killed all by herself. In the end, the Castaways helped Natalie stomp out the rat who betrayed them all, with only a minority voting for Russell, even though he controlled the game from day one.
Russell won't go home empty-handed, however: the surprisingly tearful runner-up won the $100,000 fan favorite prize for Player of the Season.
The Machiavellian Texan may have found all the hidden immunity idols (without clues!), but Russell ensured his place in the final three with his first individual immunity win, sending former phantom player Brett Clouser back to obscurity and the jury. "In my opinion, I just won the game," Russell boasted—inaccurately, as it turned out.
We met with the very disappointed Russell and the rest of the five Castaways backstage directly after tonight's show and, after consoling the runner-up, got the scoop on one of Survivor's most exciting seasons yet.
Cunning vs. Loyalty: "It's amazing to me how people play the game," Russell told us, still visibly shocked by his loss. "You want to be honest, have integrity, in the game? You ever play Monopoly, where you take people's houses and kick 'em out in the street? That's a game. But," he added ruefully, "it's part of it, I guess." Natalie explained how that "part" figured in her own strategy: "There's different criteria to play the game. The majority of the people on the jury are not deceitful people, they just don't play that way in real life or in a game. I made it my mission to get to know them and try to figure out what that voting criteria was going to be. I think because of the genuine relationships that I built, they wanted to give it to someone they truly know and will do well with the money."
Russell's Sabotage: Both Mick Trimming and Jaison Robinson told us they first learned the true extent of their tribemate's deviousness by watching the show on TV. "Honestly, I had nothing against Russell, I wasn't mad at him until I saw the episodes where he was sabotaging us," Jaison revealed before complaining, "I think it's one thing to be in control of this game and form alliances, but it's another thing to pour out water and do the things he did. People were passing out all over the place—you didn't see it, but people were unconscious because they weren't getting enough hydration." Mick expressed a slightly different viewpoint about Russell's secret canteen-emptying: "Sad thing is, it didn't shock me at all. I was just waiting for him to pee in it next: OK, he poured it out, what's he going to fill it up with?"
Russell admitted that his hijinks might be the reason Foa Foa kept losing, "but it didn't matter": "I knew that I didn't need numbers when I got to merge," he told us. "I knew I could still take control. By sabotaging them, I was making them weak in the mind. If you can control the way they feel, you can control the way they think."
Brett Who? Did Brett's (you know, the last remaining Galu triple-immunity-challenge winner?) lack of screen time bother the young clothing designer? "Going into the experience, I didn't do it to necessarily be in the spotlight," he told us. "I knew in my interviews these guys probably weren't getting the same entertainment value out of me as say Russell or Shambo, [but] I did what was right for me. I think as far as entertainment, I was kind of boring." Sorry, we nodded off—did someone say something?
Dress for...Success? All season we couldn't figure out why the Castaways would select street clothes for this adventure. Jaison and Mick pointed out that it was not a matter of choice (nor were they duped like a previous season's group who got stuck wearing their "photo shoot" outfits): "It's not like I got to say, 'I want to go on a desert island in a sweater vest,' " Jaison huffed. Mick added, "I think they sort of dressed us in a way that personified us professionally. We got up one day and got dressed, and next thing I know, we were swept off to the beach. It actually turned out to be great, because [my suit jacket] kept me warm."
Is Russell Really a Millionaire? "Yes," insisted the oilman. "That's silly that people even concentrate on that. So what if I wasn't?" We pointed out that it matters to people who are curious whether his deception extends beyond his "character" in the game. "I'm completely honest when it comes to outside the game," he insisted. "I have no reason to lie outside the game."
Heroes vs. Villains: The new season of Survivor, pitting former deceitful Castaways against those who most prized integrity, premieres Feb. 11. Will Russell be part of Heroes vs. Villains? "I don't even know if I want to play the game again," he told us morosely—before this parting shot: "RussellGotScrewed.com!" Something tells us he will change his mind and seek revenge in the South Pacific this February.
Not ready to head back to civilization? Check out our Survivor: Samoa gallery.